A key rallying cry leading up to the American Revolution was, of course, “No taxation without representation!” The American colonies were paying taxes to the British crown while having no representation in British Parliament.
Last week’s explosive ProPublica report exposing how the wealthiest Americans have consistently avoided paying income taxes reveals just how severely the nation has betrayed this basic animating principle of the American Revolution. Indeed, particularly due to Republican Party policies and principles, the nation has evolved to the point that it has stood on its head this rallying cry for a representative democracy, embracing its diametrical opposite: Representation, even disproportionate representation, without taxation.
The ProPublica report highlights how in many years billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, Michael Bloomberg, and George Soros paid little to no income taxes and how the wealthiest typically pay a substantially lower tax rate than ordinary Americans struggling to pay their bills.
To illustrate this point, the report analyzed how much the 25 richest individuals paid in taxes compared to how their wealth grew between 2014 and 2018, relying on data from Forbes to measure these individuals’ wealth. Here’s what they found:
The results are stark. According to Forbes, those 25 people saw their worth rise a collective $401 billion from 2014 to 2018. They paid a total of $13.6 billion in federal income taxes in those five years, the IRS data shows. That’s a staggering sum, but it amounts to a true tax rate of only 3.4%.
It’s a completely different picture for middle-class Americans, for example, wage earners in their early 40s who have amassed a typical amount of wealth for people their age. From 2014 to 2018, such households saw their net worth expand by about $65,000 after taxes on average, mostly due to the rise in value of their homes. But because the vast bulk of their earnings were salaries, their tax bills were almost as much, nearly $62,000, over that five-year period.
What needs to be underlined here is that this state of affairs, exacerbating both economic and political equality in the U.S., is not just a matter of corrupt practice or failed policy. It is a matter of principle for Republicans, whether they are anti-Trump or pro-Trump.
Indeed, the notorious Rep. Liz Cheney, now occupying the spotlight for her putative stand against the Trumpist assault on democracy, clearly endorsed the historically standard Republican fiscal policy of tax cuts in her recent Washington Post op-ed, asserting, “We believe in the rule of law, in limited government, in a strong national defense, and in prosperity and opportunity brought by low taxes and fiscally conservative policies.”
And Lincoln Project Republican Michael Steele in recent MSNBC op-ed referenced and endorsed “then-President Donald Trump’s key tax cuts” while nonetheless decrying Trump’s “stranglehold” on his Republican Party, writing,
From voting rights, the Constitution and the rule of law to the once-lauded choice of principle over partisanship, character over corruption and country over party, we have witnessed the Republican Party — my party — quietly approve of or outright participate in the systematic deconstruction of the legitimacy of our republic.
But we have to ask Steel and Cheney what exactly it means to them to support “country over party”?
They proudly support and promote a country in which large numbers of tax-paying Americans struggle to survive, to meet their most basic needs, while the wealthiest Americans and corporations pay lower and lower tax rates.
Trump slashed the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent, and now Republicans complain about moderating that cut to 25 or 28 percent in order to help fund investment in the very infrastructure of the country that makes it possible for corporations to operate and generate their massive profits.
Refusing to help pay for the maintenance of the country’s roads, bridges, energy systems, and so forth, that provide the very conditions of possibility for producing wealth doesn’t sound like putting country over party, or even putting country over greed. Republicans like Steele and Cheney endorse this behavior; it is, in fact, sacred principle for them.
The infamous Bush tax cuts, for example, resulted in the top 1 percent of households receiving an average tax cut of over $570,000 between 2004-2012, increasing their after-tax income by more than 5 percent each year—quite a raise! And these cuts again betrayed the traditional Republican big lie that tax cuts spur economic growth, pay for themselves, and trickle down. The Bush tax cuts ballooned deficits, after Bill Clinton had achieved budget surpluses, and increased economic inequality.
And so much for putting “country over party” in our current situation in which polls indicate that American broadly support President Joe Biden’s policy proposal to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations to help fund investment in our infrastructure.
Grover Norquist, founder of the organization Americans for Tax Reform, popularized the phrase “starve the beast,” referring to his aspiration of cutting taxes to the point of effectively defunding the federal government. He once held such sway that any Republican candidate seeking office needed to sign his pledge that they would not raise taxes. While Norquist may not be as visible as he once was, the policy remains a cornerstone of the Republican’s agenda of undermining American democracy and Americans’ lives. As Harlan Green wrote for the Huffington Post in 2011:
But in fact this pledge has not succeeded in its stated goal of lowering government spending. In fact it has mainly succeeded in starving the main engine of economic growth, consumer spending. For each time Republican administrations have cut taxes in the name of shrinking government, this has instead shifted wealth from the lower and middle income classes to the top income brackets, which lowers the overall demand for goods and services.
The average American loses economic and political power, while the economy suffers overall and the nation’s infrastructure crumbles.
Traditional Republican policies do not put country over party but rather turn back the clock on the American Revolution.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.